Cottage Industry

World-famous songwriter Dougie MacLean crafts his music close to home.

A hundred years from now, every Scottish child may have to know who Dougie MacLean is. That's because his plaintive song "Caledonia" is still in the running to become the Scottish national anthem.

Even if he doesn't make the history books, future musicians will likely know MacLean by his music. His rich melodies and simple, direct lyrics have earned a number of his songs a place in the canon for fiddle players and folk musicians.

For more than 20 years, MacLean has been carving out a place for himself in contemporary Scottish music. An early member of the Tannahill Weavers and Silly Wizard, he's been crafting hand-made music that is elegant and noble. He's literally become a cottage industry in his home of Dunkeld, a quaint rural town in the Tay River valley between Perth and Inverness.

"I don't do production-line songwriting," he said by phone from Dunkeld, "so it's all very much a big diary for me as things happen. There's a bit of a magic to it. You'd be surprised at the things that actually happen that make a song. It's a very organic kind of thing."

Fifteen years ago, he and his wife, Jennifer, settled on a lifestyle that would allow him to make music and her to paint, tending to their respective careers. He started his own record label and built a recording studio, now run by their 18-year-old son, Jaime. Three years ago they opened MacLean's Real Music Pub to encourage local music, then added the Tayback Inn, a small bed and breakfast upstairs. A storefront office sells her watercolors and his albums, both in person and on the Internet.

"It's quite a little empire, the whole operation," he laughs. "It's a big old building, built in 1823. We have three or four people working for us full time, and people working in the pub and upstairs, and I do a lot on the Internet. We've used technology over the years to be able to live in this beautiful part of Scotland and still make a living as a musician."

Initially, MacLean was strictly a Scottish phenomenon, based mainly on his fiddle tunes. Over the years, he's built a wider reputation as a singer/songwriter.

"I've had this kind of schizophrenic career," he admits. "I grew up as a fiddle player and in my youth I played a lot of wild fiddle tunes in bands. I still love fiddle and I play it a lot, but I don't do it on stage as much."

Now, aside from his brief tours of America, Australia and Europe, the easiest way to catch MacLean is to stop into his pub, especially on a Thursday. The pub offers music classes and Thursday is fiddle night.

"I probably play there a couple of times a week. My family, my parents are mainly from the west-coast islands. To them, music was just like eating, sleeping and breathing. My father loved to sing. If there was any opportunity to sing or play something, they would do it. One of the great things that the Scots and Irish have is that their tradition isn't just in the material, but it's in the spirit of wanting to sit down and make music together.

"We have sessions and then we just hang about in the bar and Jen and I are there. On Thursday night we have fiddle classes, so sometimes I'll join in, 15-20 fiddlers all from the classes, some good ones, some beginners. It's just great fun. I utterly enjoy it. It's got nothing to do with a musical career. It's just using music to socialize."

It's easy to see what's important to MacLean by listening to any of his 13 albums, eight of which have gone gold. They're filled with songs about family, a closeness to nature, good friends. He's a consummate storyteller, weaving those elements into evocative personal tales of journey, loss, work.

"Songs have to have a real reason to exist," he believes. "When I'm writing, I have to have something that I want to sing about and that means something to me. My songs come from real situations. There is a certain magic that you get in touch with when you're totally absorbed in something and it moves you to make music. As a result, I end up with this lovely body of work that has substance to it, rather than just a bunch of songs. They're all real precious to me."

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